Fear and creature comforts in Amritsar

After our stay in Mcleod Ganj, Roman and I headed south to Amritsar. The quickest bus was the one that left, by varying reports, at either 4:45 or 5am from Dharamsala, the next town below Mcleod Ganj. The guy at our hotel had told us the cab ride to Dhar’ would take a half hour, so to be safe, we arranged for a 4am pick up, which meant a 3:30am start to the day. I’m still amazed we managed to get up that early! 😉

The bus ride was great; although I had been nervous when we were at the station in Dhar’ in the pitch black before dawn and no one there spoke a word of English and it wasn’t clear which was the bus to Amritsar.  Roman asked around while having a smoke and eventually some Israeli girls showed up who also knew what they were doing, so once everything was figured out and we were on the bus, it was good fun – aside from some mild motion sickness while we were still in the mountains (see the earlier post, about our crazy awesome bus driver). 😉

Accommodation

After the stay in the somewhat grungy hotel in Mcleod Ganj, I was ready to give our sleeping bag liners a wash, so at my request, we made our way to Hotel Indus, a mid-range lodging. At around R1870 per night (after some seemingly random additional fees/taxes), this place was definitely a step up from the Annex.

The location was a lot louder; thin walls meant we could hear our neighbors coming and going but also, Amritsar is a city of over 1 million people, and Hotel Indus is at a prime location – just across from the Golden Temple. The sound of the chanting accompanied by tabla and the lights from the complex at night permeated the room, which, for the three days we were there, I really enjoyed. The view from the small rooftop terrace/hotel restaurant was also fantastic – we spent a ton of time up there, just taking in the sights and sounds (and, when the sun was high and hot enough to hit the dumpsters outside the hotel, the smells 😉 ). The lovely older man who worked (and, as far as we could tell, lived) up there got to know us as regulars, and knew that when Roman showed up he needed an ashtray, and that he took his coffee black and I mine with milk. The food on offer was way basic, served on questionably clean dishes and made in a rooftop kitchen that I can only describe as awesomely primitive – we just loved it up there. 🙂

The room was smallish and pretty full – only room enough to walk around the bed, but it was much cleaner and there were no bugs. 😀 The linens were clearly old; many were stained, but they were old stains and the sheets and towels smelled and felt clean, which was good enough for me. The AC was decent, the power only cut a couple of times, the TV actually worked (we watched part of an Indian sitcom – didn’t understand the plot but thoroughly enjoyed the sound effects like buzzers, bells and whistles that we can only surmise were included to add to support the clearly stilted acting. 😉 ), the shower actually had a (semi-effective) curtain – in short, we were living in luxury!

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Our room at Indus

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A much friendlier looking bathroom

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Questionable stain on the towel. I’m *sure* it’s just old hot chocolate or ketchup or something. 😉

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The view from the rooftop terrace 🙂

Wipe out

I’m really glad we chose the hotel we did, because I ended up being a bit under the weather. It wasn’t anything huge or awful; mostly I just wasn’t feeling 100% and in retrospect I wonder if my body was fighting some sort of bug. I had a headache but not too bad, felt queasy but never actually had to throw up, felt achy in my joints but never had a temperature and just generally felt exhausted. Our cozy room was a good place to crash. 🙂

The first afternoon there I thought I was just tired out from the bus ride, and we went to Golden Temple for Roman’s first visit there, my second. Had a late lunch/early dinner at the fantastic, free Langar Canteen – it still amazes me and I think it is just so cool that the Sikhs are able to successfully coordinate the feeding of so many thousands of people each day, all based on principles of generosity and compassion. The logistics alone are a feat, but the motivation behind it and the fact that it works, and has worked for years, based on donations and volunteers is just incredible to me.

The next day, I was determined to go back and volunteer in the kitchens. I was already feeling a bit off when Roman and I decided that he would go without me to the Pakistan border for the evening flag-down ceremony. It is well worth seeing, but I had been before, and though I was feeling impatient with being a bit weak, I knew I wasn’t up for the long, hot, crowded event.

So instead, I headed off to the temple. During the first visit I was on the chapatti assembly line and was looking forward to a second chance to work on my technique and to contribute feeding pilgrims to the temple.

This was my first time really going someplace on my own. The temple was so close to the hotel and I knew it was a safe place, but for some reason, I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was a woman, alone, in India. I’ve felt safe the whole time I’ve been here, and there wasn’t anything that made me think I wouldn’t be safe in the temple, but I just couldn’t shake the nerves I was experiencing.

I got a lot of stares too. I don’t know if this was because I was more noticeable as a woman alone, or if I was just noticing people’s looks more. There don’t seem to be many Western tourists at the temple and we’d gotten plenty of attention the day before, but somehow I could feel the eyes on me much more strongly now. I was also getting stopped a lot more along the way – every few paces from the entrance to the arched stairway leading to the kitchens someone asked for a photo with me; one woman even requested my signature, phone number and email address. The people were all friendly and nice; feeling a bit ill and a bit paranoid I just wasn’t in a great mindset.

Finally I made my way to the kitchen, to find that the chapatti making was over for the day – no practice for me unfortunately! Apparently, this was a special day – Guru Ram Das’ birthday, and maybe this was why things were a bit different. I had noticed that people were being fed even outside the temple, and things were busier than I had seen them before. One friendly man informed me that there would be fireworks later on.

I decided that I’d just stay at the temple and enjoy the ambiance until it was time for the display. Over the next hour or so, the place became absolutely packed! With the dimming sunlight, the swelling the crowds and the anticipation of the upcoming spectacle, I was able to fade into the background, and sit on the ground amongst the families, taking in the dizzying parade of thousands making their way clockwise around the pool. It was some great people watching! 🙂

Eventually the show started, with fireworks being set off from all four corners of the complex, over the water. I watched for a while and thought it might make sense to leave before it was over, thinking about the logistics of so many people exiting the relatively narrow stairways out of the temple. I can’t imagine what that must have been like – even leaving early, it was a mad press at the main entrance and I have to admit I got a bit nervous again.

With people pushing in from all sides I couldn’t move except as the crowd moved; there were hands and limbs everywhere pushing everyone forward and although I was sure there was no harm meant in it, it did feel a bit invasive to get manhandled in that way. It was a relief to make it out in one piece on the other side; and after that extended stay at the temple, I was definitely exhausted, sick and ready for some downtime.

Creature comforts

So, the next day I just took it easy. There was the typical internal battle going on – I felt impatient with myself for being such a wimp since I was only a bit sick (like I should tough it out and go do things anyway), felt impatient with my body for the time it was taking to get better (isn’t one long sleep enough??). When I could get my mind to shut up though, it felt really great and really necessary. Even with all the sleep I’d gotten the night before, napping in the middle of the day was still feeling delicious. 🙂

We finally ventured out in the evening, looking for an internet café to print out train tickets for the next leg of our journey. My stomach had been complaining at me so I’d hardly eaten the past two days. While the internet shop was closed by the time we got to it, there was something even better: Like a beacon, the florescent lights of the KFC called to me, and suddenly I was ready to eat again. 🙂 I am usually not into fast food, but man, the chicken and fries felt like heaven going down, and I am pretty sure that meal was a turning point – the next day I finally had energy again and was feeling much more positive. Any tension from being nervous the day before had left my body; I felt open, relaxed, happy again.

The last day in Amritsar was fun; we made our way through the Hindu Mata temple, which, with its winding passageways, mirrored walls and colorful statues felt a bit like a carnival funhouse. We had some great food – NOT fastfood; my dish was something called Paneer Takka Tak if I remember correctly which was a paneer (of course 😉 ) in some sort of spicy sauce with pepper and onion – totally delicious. And we took an evening walk through the colorful, chaotic streets behind the hotel that were packed with bright shops selling all sorts of things but mostly incredibly beautiful cloth to make salwar kameez. If only I had more room in my luggage; the patterns and color combinations were just gorgeous and I would have loved to go shopping. 😉

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